Remarks to the National Congress of American Indians Executive Council Winter Session

*** As Prepared for Delivery ***

Thank you for the introduction Ms. Majel-Dixon. I appreciate the opportunity to join you this afternoon. It is always an honor to be with so many tribal leaders from across the Country. I had the opportunity to visit with some of you, and many Alaska Native tribal leaders during President Obama's White House meeting with tribal leaders.

As you all know and have been following in the media, we have been experiencing tumultuous times in Congress. However, when it comes to the work of Indian Country, the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs has always remained a place where partisanship is set aside for the greater good of improving the lives of our Nation's first Americans. The Committee this year has begun its work with a hearing on Indian unemployment.

As the media and lawmakers gasp at 10% unemployment in this country, I do not have to remind this audience of the rates of unemployment in Indian Country. We must be doing more to support and enhance job creation and long term economic development.

More American Indians and Alaska Natives should fill the positions of the IHS, of local schools, and local law enforcement. We must support an environment where the private sector can invest and create jobs in Native communities. The Native American 8(a) contracting program has proven to be an incubator of Native businesses.

Second only to Indian gaming in its economic impact in Indian Country, the Native American 8(a) federal contracting program has delivered the promise of desperately needed jobs and economic development to those participating tribes and Alaska Native corporations. While Native contracting is less than 1.3% of the federal contracting pie, some in Congress seek to eliminate or weaken Native contracting benefits. Their efforts will be remembered in history as one of those ill conceived attacks on progressive federal Indian policy. In the last year alone, we have had to fight off four major legislative attempts to kill or severely diminish the Native American 8(a) program. As you visit with your representatives in Congress this week, I urge you all to remind them of your support for this important program.

To shape a new future for Indian Country we must think progressively on all fronts. I have been diligently working on a bill proposed by the Alaska Federation of Natives that would change the landscape of the delivery of economic development programs for the benefit of American Indians and Alaska Natives. Entitled the Native American Challenge Demonstration Project Act, it would establish a five year demo that would allow tribal entities to enter into a compact with the United States and co-mingle and integrate federal economic development funding.

We all know the reality that while the United States is the largest economy in the world, most all of Indian country remains in third world conditions. To help third world countries improve their economies, Congress created the Millennium Challenge Corporation that allows developing countries to enter into development compacts with the United States. My bill marries the best practices of delivering federal economic development with the success of Indian self-determination.

We know the success of Indian Self Determination and Self-Governance. The majority of tribal services in Alaska are delivered by the tribes themselves through self-determination contracts and compacts. It is under self governance that our Native health system has developed an advanced telehealth network to deliver basic healthcare to some of the most remote locations on earth. Our native health system has developed new models of delivering health-care based on the holistic sense of Native being. Non-native health leaders from across the country have tuned in to learn what we're doing up north.

It is these types of results that I foresee with the Native American Challenge Demonstration Act. It is a bill that would strengthen good governance, promote entrepreneurship and eliminate poverty through job creation. It would enable tribes to be the leaders of their own economic future.

In talking about Indian employment and economic development policy, we cannot ignore Indian education. Our education system, from head start to post-secondary education must be successful in preparing Native youth for the workforce.

We must prepare our Native youth to lead nations. The promise of the future of Indian Country remains within our youth. I welcome the NCAI youth commission, and the young people traveling this week with your tribal leaders.

I understand later this week that the Indian Affairs committee will hold a listening session on Indian Education. I encourage you all to voice your opinions or provide written comment on what you feel will improve the state of Indian education. The Senate Health Education Labor and Pensions Committee will hopefully soon begin its work on the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, or what is known as the No Child Left Behind Act. Indian Country must have a strong voice. I would like to task the NCAI youth commission with providing the Indian Affairs committee their thoughts on preventing Native students from dropping out, and ways we can improve test scores.

We must ensure that programs support the academic excellence our children can achieve with curriculum based in Native ways of knowing, with schools that embrace and revitalize Native languages to ensure that America's indigenous cultures remain vibrant. That is why I have reintroduced my school accountability improvements act which includes a provision to provide flexibility for Native language immersion programs.

We must fight for policies, programs, and practices that lead to schools where Native American and Alaska Native students feel welcome, where communities have a strong voice in how their schools are run, where traditional culture and the modern world are not at odds but complement each other. We must do everything we can to give hope where there is alcoholism and suicide. Respect where there is intolerance and violence.

We mourn the passing this year of a great leader in Indian education, Dr. William Demmert. Through his leadership and research, we have the tools to build a new path for Indian country. Our rural villages and remote reservations need law enforcement, tribal courts, water and sanitation, new jobs, and vibrant economies. To achieve the goals of Indian Country we need to ensure that the education system allows Native communities to promote and infuse their cultures into the system. Tribal communities will secure their future by instilling their rich tradition in their youth while better preparing them to succeed within the greater American education system.

All of these tasks will require the commitment from our tribal leaders, our leaders in Congress, and the Administration. I re-affirm my commitment to working with you, through my work on the Indian Affairs Committee, the Senate Health Education Labor and Pensions committee, and the Committee on Appropriations.

I appreciate the opportunity to join you today. I am always very honored to be on the agenda of this Summit. Thank you.

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